Repurposing closed landfills to alleviate constrained budgets and meet sustainability goals
Among the many disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about, one issue that has been exacerbated is the budget strain among municipalities of all sizes across the nation.
A Pew study of 13 American cities found that all of them had budget shortfalls for 2021, most ranging between 4.5 percent to 17 percent. With many using accumulated fund balances and dedicated reserves to patch budget holes, many of our nation’s municipalities are sure to be in a similar position when budgeting for 2022.
Perhaps more than ever, our local governments will be eyeing cost-saving adjustments and revenue-generating additions to navigate the next several years. One way for municipalities to generate economic gains is by repurposing closed landfills for community solar installations.
Solar development on landfills took off after the EPA launched its RE-Powering America’s Lands Initiative in 2008. As of October 2020, more than 245 former landfills have been repurposed for solar, with many more projects in the planning, permitting and construction stages.
Community solar projects, which are gaining ground thanks to an increased focus on sustainability and providing access to renewable energy to underserved communities, are being built on closed landfills more and more. And as community solar incentives expand into new states, landfill solar will continue to expand even more.
Here’s a look at why your municipality should consider landfill solar and how to determine whether your closed landfills are suitable for development.
Developing solar on closed landfills provides wins for all
Closed landfills are becoming more popular for community solar installations because they provide local municipalities and residents access to renewable energy at a reduced cost. In addition to the environmental benefits, community solar installations can also generate up to millions of dollars in economic benefits to municipalities in the form of lease revenue and/or electricity bill savings, especially when built within states that offer community solar incentives.
First, installing a solar system on a closed landfill makes use of otherwise dead space. Given there are thousands of inactive or closed landfills in the United States with more continuing to shut down each year, there is a ton of untapped potential.
Local communities are often much more accepting of having solar installations developed on closed landfills as it’s minimally intrusive since the land likely can’t be used for much else at the present time.
In addition, when a solar installation is developed on a closed landfill, the long-term owner of that solar asset (typically the developer or another third-party) often takes over the operation and maintenance responsibilities for the landfill. That includes tasks like maintaining the grass, or sampling groundwater, which can save local municipalities money and resources.
Finding the right landfill
There are definite sweet spots for developing solar on closed landfills in the United States, and they can be found in states that have incentive programs in place to drive renewable energy adoption by offsetting the development cost of solar.
But no matter where you plan to develop, you need to confirm there’s demand for renewable energy in the area. Make sure to assess local needs and identify potential energy offtakers before taking any other steps.
The landfill’s shape and age will also play a big role in the ability to develop. If there are too many slopes or not enough surface area, it will be more difficult to design a system with a large enough capacity to make the project worthwhile. Landfills that are more than 10 years old are more favorable for development as the rate of settlement has adequately reduced.
Municipalities should enlist an experienced developer to ensure proper due diligence on the site is completed and any issues or restrictions are identified and addressed upfront. This diligence should start with the landfill’s closure report, which is vital in detailing the makeup of the landfill, cap composition and thickness of geomembrane layers.
After due diligence is completed, permitting commences across local, state and federal levels, and once approved, construction work may begin. A good developer will manage this entire process on behalf of the municipality.
Beware of increased costs and permitting, site challenges
When developing solar systems on closed landfills, you might encounter some cost, permitting or site challenges, but they are hardly insurmountable.
Closed landfills are often more expensive to develop than typical greenfield sites due to equipment, development and permitting requirements. Additional equipment, like ballasting systems required to safely anchor installations and higher quality cable trays to run electrical systems, can drive up costs.
While permitting is never easy, it can be more difficult for closed landfills as a post-closure use permit must be filed, which can take as long as one year and add additional consulting and regulatory filing costs. Landfills based in rural areas with outdated electrical systems might require upgrades be made to the grid for interconnection.
By understanding and addressing these challenges, as well as exploring the economic advantages and savings of a solar installation, you can determine whether these development opportunities make sense for your municipality.
Nichole Coulter is the vice president of development at Distributed Solar Development (DSD) LLC, responsible for the development of projects from the point of origination through Notice to Proceed (NTP) for a variety of solar and solar plus energy storage projects across the United States. Coulter manages engineering, permitting and interconnection submittals and deliverables associated with the projects, as well as working directly with the DSD construction team who takes the projects from NTP to Commercial Operation Date (COD). She has 25 years of experience in the natural resource, permitting and development fields, and has been focused on renewable energy development since 2003.